Well then, just look at Chile on a world map. A country stretched like a tagliatelle on a pauper’s plate; it’s got all sorts of landscapes nature has to offer, or almost. That’s without mentioning the Easter Island, Rapa Nui, a spit in the ocean somewhere afar. So this country is definitely part of our best travel tips for South America. And yet, very few budget travellers decide to go on a backpacking trip to Chile. It’s true that prices are higher here than in most countries on the continent. But there are ways to backpack Chile on a budget that might not be so true in other, cheaper destinations. We’re giving you here all our tips, plus a few of our favourite destinations, to plan a great Chile backpacking trip.
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A few things to know before backpacking to Chile
Chile is expensive
As a matter of fact, Chile is an expensive country, among the most expensive in South America; so it’s unlikely that you’ll do there the most budget backpacking in South America.
Moreover, many things have to be paid for, much more than in neighbouring countries. For example: public toilets, highways or the entrance to many national parks and monuments are free in Argentina but have a fee here. Therefore always keep some change with you when you visit Chile.
During our backpacking trip in 2019, the prices in Chile were the highest we met in South America. To give you an idea, albeit vague, here are a few average prices as of November 2019. The currency in Chile is the Chilean peso.
Note that different regions have different levels of life, eg. the South is pricier than the rest of the country.
|Water bottle (33 cl)||$700 CLP||0.85€ – $0.94 USD|
|Cappuccino||$1700 CLP||2.07€ – $2.28 USD|
|National beer||$2500 CLP||3.04€ – $3.35 USD|
|Menu in cheap restaurant||$5400 CLP||6.56€ – $7.23 USD|
|1 way in public transport||$720 CLP||0.88€ – $0.96 USD|
|Bus Santiago-Valparaíso||$4000 CLP||4.54€ – $5.02 USD|
|1 night in a hostel dorm||$5000 CLP||5,68€ – $6,29 USD|
Chile has a lot of rules
If throughout your travels in South America you got used to the chaotic mess of Peru and Bolivia, or the friendly informality of neighbouring Argentina, you’ll need time to acclimatise to Chile.
Laws and regulations seem to be much stricter, according to many people we met, especially drivers mentioning strict road controls. As a mere example, a vehicle must have its lights on at all times of day and night, and a driver without them can be fined with no pity. Usually, people in that situation are immediately warned by their fellow automobilists (showing at least some solidarity). We saw a higher police presence in this country in general than in other countries on the continent.
We think you should keep this in mind when you are traveling to Chile. So wherever you roam, make sure you follow the rules and the recommendations of the SERNATUR, the Chile tourism board (in Spanish) at all times.
One law we found hard to understand (and to respect): it is strictly forbidden to drink alcohol in public spaces. Even though we did witness a few people breaking this rule, we also heard of others getting into trouble, eg. for holding a beer right outside a bar (!).
Chile is an open-air market
There are street sellers literally eve-ry-where. Be it on the street, on the beach, on the bus or metro or at terraces, it seems like half of the population is constantly trying to sell something to the other half, with the help of much shouting and gesticulating. While it may seem “exotic” and entertaining at first, the sheer amount of it quickly grows oppressive.
The good thing about it is that it’s easy to find almost any object you may need for your travels at a cheap price. It’s also possible to get your meals on the street all the time, and therefore cut on your food budget. This is one of the ways to make your travel to Chile a tad more budget friendly.
Chileans speak weird
If you think you speak a decent Spanish and can get through a conversation anywhere in South America, think again. It’ll certainly take time to get used to the rhythm, the accent, and the curious Spanish language that Chileans use.
Chileans have that thing when they speak, that they always seem to be in a hurry to get words out. I spent weeks understanding only the 1st half of their sentences; and then laboriously making sense of the puzzle.
On the other hand, many people you’ll meet in towns or in tourist hot spots will speak English; probably more than in the rest of Latin America.
What to expect when backpacking in Chile
Transportation by bus in Chile is relatively cheap, especially considering the high quality of service. It was our transportation of choice when we were getting around Chile tourist attractions. It’s not possible to haggle the ticket price here like it is in Bolivia or Peru; which also means that you shouldn’t be asked double the price for being a gringo.
If you prefer self-driven trips, consider renting a motorhome for your Chile road trip.
You can also find cheap internal flights if you plan long enough in advance. But well, you know, we do have a problem with recommending the plane. We find that it’s bad enough for the environment that we took it to come here in the first place. If your Chilean trip implies riding the bus for 10+ hours, maybe you should consider changing your journey..?
Chile being the long piece of land that we know, it’s commonly divided in regions; these are numbered, starting with #1 in the very north and ending with #15… even more north! Well, history had its role to play there. But apart from the region of Arica which is a recent addition to the country, the regions follow a logical order from north to south. For example, La Serena is in the 4th region, Valparaíso in the 5th and Puerto Montt in the 10th region.
It’s also easy to travel from Chile to neighbouring countries by bus, so feel free to plan border crossings into your South America travel route.
Good news though: hitchhiking is fairly easy, especially in rural parts. We hitchhiked on Chiloé, from Castro to Puerto Montt and from Pichilemu to Santiago without any kind of problem.
Read more: Our selection of best things to do in Santiago, Chile
You won’t find in Chile the same conditions as in Bolivia or Peru, where products and hands aren’t properly washed. There is in general a good level of hygiene, and therefore probably no risk of food poisoning.
The tap water is drinkable, so there’s really no need to splurge in bottled water. All you need is your own beloved refillable bottle.
During our backpacking trip, we found it also very easy to find hosts in Chile. Do send requests enough time beforehand (2 weeks and more) in low-population areas (eg. Chiloé, Valle del Elqui); but don’t in big towns, where people prefer to be spontaneous: a few days before should be enough.
We found it very tricky in Atacama though, although not impossible. With requests sent 3 weeks in advance, it might do the trick.
While we were backpacking through Chile, we stayed in a little girl’s room in Puerto Varas; in an almost empty hostel in Pichilemu; and we had a breathtaking view from our balcony in Valparaíso.
Backpacking in Chile is safe
True enough, there are pickpockets in Santiago, and some neighbourhoods of Valparaíso can be somewhat hot. But apart from that, the country is very safe everywhere, especially in Patagonia (where there is no one anyway). The usual recommendations apply there though, as they do everywhere in the world, in a place you don’t know.
Don’t show off your valuables; keep an eye on your belongings; follow your instinct and wander off the crowded parts of towns only as long as you feel confident. We’re all for getting off the beaten path and exploring the areas that never get mentioned by travel guides. But if we feel that a place looks too seedy and we start feeling uncomfortable, we turn back. That means staying aware of your surroundings.
You might actually be more at risk of natural disasters. The country experiences quite a lot of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis. What to do in case it happens while you’re there? Honestly, we have no idea! I guess we’d follow the people and copy exactly what they do – they’re trained to know how to act when things happen.
Find a more detailed list of precautions here, along with links to travel advice from your own government.
Backpacking destinations: Where to go in Chile
We believe that the best is to concentrate on one half of the country (north, south or the central part) and spend 3 weeks to 1 month there. Among the many attractive destinations that are scattered throughout the country’s extensive territory, here’s our top 4 of best places to visit in Chile, from north to south.
Start planning: Our recommended 2 and 3 weeks in Chile itinerary
If you can’t make it to Mars in your lifetime, you can at least visit the Atacama desert. It sure is an expensive destination, but one you can hardly overlook. It’s an aggregation of some of the most stupefying landscapes in the world. Desert? Check. Geysers? Check. Salt lakes? Check. Some crazy alpacas? Check. The region of Atacama is by all standards a very special place.
San Pedro de Atacama, the town that has bloomed in the middle, is definitely a tourist hub; people come all the way from Brazil to work here. But considering the sheer amount of hostels and tour agencies, we don’t find it necessary to book anything beforehand. Just go a day before, give yourself time to find a bed, inquire about tours, discuss prices, and organise your stay accordingly.
One thing for sure: prepare a substantial budget. But by being smart and not rushed, you can save a fair amount of pesos.
Read more tips about backpacking the Atacama here
Valparaíso –or Valpo as it’s known here– is cosmopolitan, colourful and rough around the edges. You shouldn’t miss the “Jewel of the Pacific” at any cost on your backpacking Chile vacation; it will charm you with the urban beauty of its coastline, the friendliness of its people and their urgent desire to reclaim the city.
Street art fans, urban explorers and budget travellers in general will all get their kick in vibrant Valparaíso. There’s a plethora of hostels with good vibes to choose from, and most of them are quite cheap. But in such a large students community, chances are you find a Couchsurfing host without any problem.
Make sure you keep your head cool and don’t wander too much off though. When we say that Valparaíso can be “rough around the edges” we mean it literally.
Read more tips about backpacking Valparaíso here
Our first stop in the country, the archipelago of Chiloé charmed us since day one. Imagine small wooden hamlets scattered on the rain-beaten coasts lined with colourful fishing boats. If you think of Scotland, you’re not far from the truth.
The weather is chilly but the people are warmhearted. Hitchhiking on the islands is dead-easy, therefore allowing free island-hopping (only cars pay the ferryboat). Couchsurfing can be tricky, unless you plan long beforehand, but there are enough hostels in the main towns of Castro and Ancud.
Read more tips about backpacking Chiloé here
Patagonia & Torres del Paine National Park
If you’re a nature lover that’s not scared of the cold, Patagonia is with no doubt one of the best places to visit in Chile and Argentina.
From our post, learn about how to plan a visit to Patagonia
Torres del Paine is one of those Wow!-places on earth. This National Park is located in the extreme south of the continent, where the land makes way for the ice. It’s a landscape of imposing mountains, lakes and ancient forests. A place to feel small, to remember where you belong in the course of the universe.
There are several hiking routes within Torres del Paine national park, that take between 5 and 9 days. Actually, some people even go for a simple 1-day trek. We couldn’t recommend a preferred route, as it depends on the time of year, the weather, how much time you have and how fit of a hiker you are. Do keep in mind that you have to book the campsites long in advance.
Apart from Torres del Paine, Chilean Patagonia has many stunning national parks and hiking routes that are equally bucketlist-worthy. If you are into multi-day hikes, check out our selection of best multi-day treks in Chilean Patagonia.
Backpacking Chile off the beaten path
If you’re eager to leave the crowds behind on your backpacking trip, here’s a handful of wild off-the-beaten path Chile destinations. And we mean ‘wild’.
Puerto Varas & the Lake District
Where many travel guides and blogs mention Pucón, we prefer the calm of Puerto Varas. The Lake District of Chile is as pretty as its brethren in Argentina and shares many similarities.
When the time has come to climb a majestic volcano, admire a crystal-clear lake, do outdoor activities and enjoy local craft beer, you’ll find exactly the same here as you would in Pucón – minus the crowd. It’s probably a tad cheaper too.
We also advise Puerto Varas over Puerto Montt to the adventure travellers out there who are headed south to Patagonia. Both the legendary Carretera Austral and the fjords boat trips going to the southern tip of the continent leave from Puerto Montt; that’s only 30 minutes away from Puerto Varas, with frequent buses doing the route.
Read more tips about backpacking Puerto Varas here
Valle del Elqui
There are many reasons to visit Valle del Elqui, the secluded wine-producing area off La Serena. One of these reasons is pisco, the national alcoholic drink made of grapes and produced here. Another is one of the clearest skies in the world. It’s also a strong energetic pole attracting a cohort of hippies, mystics and, presumably, aliens.
Despite all this, there isn’t a great deal of budget accommodation in Valle del Elqui. There are a few camping places around Vicuña and Pisco Elqui, that fill up quickly in the high season or during important astronomical events.
Read more tips about backpacking Valle del Elqui here
Lauca National Park
Where to go in Chile when you’re coming by road from Peru or Bolivia? In a complete contrast to Torres del Paine, Lauca national park showcases dry landscapes of volcanoes and bright blue lakes in the far north of Chile. It’s a region that is often overlooked by travellers backpacking to Chile, usually hopping from Atacama to Uyuni; or the other way round.
Fair play, visiting Lauca is easier said than done. Besides booking a tour from Arica, there are only a few buses going to the nearest town of Putre. The best way might therefore be to rent a car, or its poor little brother, hitchhiking.
Humberstone, abandoned mining village near Iquique
If you’re into urban exploration at all and get your kick with rusty stuff in deserted buildings (oh gosh, that sounds bad…), then you’ll love Humberstone!
It’s one of the many mining towns in Chile that thrived on saltpetre at the end of the XIXth century. It had to stop production in 1960, and since then its 573.48 ha (1,417.1 acres) are left empty and desolate. But oh so quaint!
It’s very close to Iquique, you can get there in an hour with a rented car or a shuttle bus. Make sure to protect yourself from the desert sun and to charge your camera.
Hitchhike the Carretera Austral
Driving on the Carretera Austral is another incredible life experience offered by Chile’s nature! The far end of Patagonia rings of adventure, with such places as Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas; and evokes images of wilderness and remoteness.
It’s a landscape of fjords and rugged islands, a place where Nature rules and Men are few. The 1,240 kilometre (770 mi) long Route 7 stretches from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins.
Make sure you bring a tent and possibly a fishing rod, and be ready to spend days waiting for a lift. The whole trip could take you weeks to complete. Fortunately, it’s easy to do wild camping in Chile.
If you’re looking for a way to escape the crowd and find yourself, this is probably the best. Unless you have a travel buddy, you might well feel lonely at times. But you don’t care – this is freedom.
Puerto Raul Marin Balmaceda
A remote sandy spot on the Chilean coast, in the unspoilt wilderness of Northern Patagonia. It’s easy to get lost in the majestic immensities of Chile; and Raul Marin Balmaceda sure is a beautiful place to get lost!
It’s a place where the ocean hugs the fjords, overlooked by the wild rain forest and the distant silhouette of Volcan Melimoyu. Imagine wild camping on a vast beach, completely alone except for the dolphins cruising by.
Not convinced yet? Read this account of a stay at Raul Marin Balmaceda on Above Us Only Skies
Eco backpacking travels in Chile
We don’t want to bore you again with the same usual recommendations. We know you are a responsible traveller – otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading Green Mochila.
Of course you are respectful of the people you meet, even though their culture is different from yours, even though they speak as bizarrely as they do in Chile.
Of course, you don’t camp in protected areas where it’s not allowed, don’t start a fire where it’s forbidden, and pick up your rubbish when you leave. Basically, you leave the spot as nice and tidy as when you found it, right?
The only thing we really want to focus on is the plague that is plastic. As budget traveller backpacking in Chile, you’ll probably end up eating most of your meals at street carts. Don’t deny it – we know you well! Well, you know how much plastic they usually give away when they serve street food…
So be ready with your own reusable cup for takeaway drinks, your own cutlery for the food and your own foldaway bags. And shake all that under their nose right when you order to make sure they don’t outsmart you.
If you don’t have a travel bottle yet, you should really get one. Sure, you could get 1 plastic bottle on day 1 and keep it for the rest of your life. But there again, that f***ing plastic is not good for you.
Please check again our list of eco travels tips for responsible tourism
Are you planning a backpacking trip to Chile? Do you have any question we’re not answering here?
Feel free to ask us in the comments!
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